Stories with Chinese Idioms*
-by David James Scott,
aka Zale R. Dalen,
aka The Man in China
Classic Chinese Poems
History, Invention and Philosophy
The Source of Chinese Idioms
Children's Poems and Songs
Poems and Songs
(dēng guàn què lóu)
- 王之涣Wáng Zhīhuàn
rì yī shān jìn
White sun leans mountain side.
huáng hé rù hǎi liú
Yellow river flows into the sea.
yù qióng qiān lǐ mù
Eyes want to see one thousand li
gèng shàng yī céng lóu
More up one floor
This is another poem
that is familiar to everybody in China. It's using
climbing the Crane Pavilion as a metaphor for gaining
understanding, for "seeing the big picture".
In ancient China during the Tang dynasty there were many
famous poets. Among them, the most famous was
(also known as Lǐ Bó). In
childhood he worked hard. In his youth he wanted to do
something for his country. But because of his character he
was not willing to cater to social conventions. So time
after time his hopes were shattered. Therefore, he
travelled everywhere drinking alcohol and writing poems. He
wrote a great number of poems about his beloved homeland.
Everyone in China knows his Silent Night Longing:
"At the end of the bed, moonlight shines. Doubt is frost
on the ground. Raise head watch moon. Bow head yearn for
Note: It's hard to
appreciate this poem in the English translation,
because in the Chinese it has rhyming lines. There is
much ambiguity of meaning. "Doubt have frost on
ground." for example, could mean "Doubt that the
moonlight is frost on the ground." or "Doubt that there is
frost on the ground, even though the moonlight makes it look
the Chinese word for "lower head" has two meanings -
bow head, and yield or submit. So it's hard to
decide whether to translate
as "Bow head
yearn for homeland." or "Yield to yearning for
homeland." Of course the poetry of the original
language holds both meanings.
In any case, the images
are beautiful and evocative, like all classic Chinese
Zhuangzi and the Happy Fish
was an ancient Chinese philosopher. One day, he and his
friend went out to enjoy the afternoon and saw fish swimming
back and forth in a stream. Zhuāngzǐ
said: "Look at those fish. How happy they are."
His friend said: "You are not a fish. How do you know they
said: "You are not me. How do you know I don't know the
fish are happy?"
Bān and The
Invention of the Saw
Lu Ban was a famous carpenter in the Chun Qiu period. One
day he went up the mountain to chop wood. He wasn't careful
going up the mountain and slipped, grabbing at some grass to
stop his fall. The grass cut his hand. He looked carefully
at the grass and noticed that it had teeth along its edge.
He thought, if I made a tool with an edge like this grass it
certainly would be very sharp and could cut wood. Based on
this idea, Lu Ban invented the saw. With a saw, a
carpenter can cut wood very easily.
(cǐdì wú yín sānbǎi liǎng -This Place No Silver Three
Hundred Pieces of Silver Not Buried Here
In ancient times, a man called Zhang San had accumulated
three hundred pieces of silver after a year of hard work.
He was worried that his money would be stolen, so he put
it in a wooden box and buried it
back yard at the corner of his house.
This did not completely ease his mind, so he
note on the wall
saying: "Three hundred pieces of silver are not buried
His neighbour, Wang Er, had noticed the activity in
the yard. At midnight he took all the silver. In order to
deceive Zhang San, he added a note to the one on the wall
saying: "Your neighbour, Wang Er, did not steal the
wú yín sānbǎi liǎng - literally "this place no silver three
hundred money") Three hundred pieces of Silver aren't
Meaning: A clumsy denial resulting in self-exposure.
This idiom is very unusual in that it is seven characters.
Chinese idioms are almost always four characters.
(yà miáo zhù zhǎng - Pull Shoots Help
Shoots Help Growth
According to legend, in
ancient times there was a farmer who felt that his wheat was
growing too slowly. He couldn't wait any longer, and had
an idea. He went into his field and pulled each of his
wheat shoots higher in the soil. Happily he went home, and
to his family said: "Ai ya, I'm so tired. Today I pulled
on every one of my wheat shoots and made then grow taller."
His son heard this and knew it was a disaster. He went out
to the field and saw that all the young wheat plants had
wilted and died.
( yà miáo zhù zhǎng - literally "pull shoots help grow " )
Meaning: Spoiling things with excessive enthusiasm.
Impatience ruining the results.
zhōu qiú jiàn - Mark Boat Seek Sword)
Mark Boat Seek Sword
the Zhan guo period (Warring States
period 475 B.C. to 221 B.C.), a man from the country of Chu was
crossing the Yangtze River when a gigantic wave hit the the
boat and the sword he was wearing fell overboard into the
water. Immediately the man pulled out a small knife and
made a mark on the side of the boat. Everybody thought this
was very strange, but he smiled and said: "My sword fell
into the water where I made this mark. Now I'll know where
to look for it."
The boat went to shore. The man from Chu jumped into
the water. He felt to the east. He felt to the west. But
not a trace of his sword could he find. The onlookers
watched his efforts and all laughed at him.
zhōu qiú jiàn -
literally "mark boat seek sword") You're marking
Meaning: Foolishly taking measures without regard to
(huà shé tiānzú - Draw Snake Add Feet)
Draw Snake Add Feet
During the Zhan guo
period (Warring States period 475 B.C. to 221 B.C.), in the
country of Chu, a large household held a ceremony and made
a sacrifice in memory of their ancestors. After the
ceremony was completed, the master of the household gave
his servants a jug of wine to thank them for their help.
But there wasn't enough wine for all the servants. One of
them proposed that they should all draw a picture of a
snake. The one who finished a good picture first would get
One of the servants finished a good drawing. He looked
around and saw that the others had not finished, so he
triumphantly seized the jug of wine and then added feet to
his snake. When one of the other servants finished his
drawing, he said: "It's a general rule that snakes do not
have feet, so that isn't a snake." Having
said this, he
snatched the wine back and drank it down.
( huà shé tiānzú
- literally "draw snake add feet."
) You're adding feet to a snake.
Meaning: You are doing unnecessary work that is ruining your
result. (very useful when students use unnecessary
phrases in a composition, generally speaking.)
(shǒu zhū dài tù - Guard Tree Wait
他就躺在树下休息。 一天，他正在田里耕种，忽然看见一 只兔子 惊慌地跑了过来， 一下子撞倒了树桩上，死了。
Guarding the Tree Awaiting a Rabbit
the country of Song during the Chun Qui period (literally
"Spring Fall period" 770 to 476 B.C.), there lived a farmer
who had a tree in his field. Whenever he was tired from
working, he would rest under the tree.
On day he was tilling his field. Suddenly a panic stricken
rabbit ran past him, crashed into the tree and killed
itself. The farmer caught it with less effort than it
takes to blow ashes. He was very
happy to take it home for a delicious rabbit stew dinner.
then on, he did no work in his field. He waited by his
tree for another rabbit to run into it and kill itself.
This didn't happen, and his fields lay fallow and bare.
Chinese idiom: 守
株待兔 (shǒu zhū dài tù -
literally "guard tree wait rabbit" ) You're
waiting for a rabbit.
Meaning: Foolishly waiting for a most unlikely windfall
instead of doing any work.
(wàng méi zhǐ kě - Anticipate Plum Stop Thirst)
Anticipate Plums Stop Thirst
summer day, Commander CaoCao, a famous general during the
San Dynasty, was on a distant campaign. On that particular
day the sun was blazing hot. Nobody knew where they could
find water. The soldiers were thirsty. They dragged their
feet and their marching slowed to a crawl. Some even
collapsed from heat stroke, falling unconscious on the
road. CaoCao saw this and worried about losing the coming
Then he had an idea. He
galloped his horse to catch up with the head of the column
and pointed with his whip, saying: "There is a big plum
forest ahead. The plums are ripe, delicious and thirst
quenching." Hearing about the sweet plums made the soldiers
mouths water. Their morale improved. CaoCao seized his
chance and ordered his army forward at full speed. Quickly
they marched to the battle ground, arriving in good spirits.
Chinese idiom: 望梅止渴 (wàng
méi zhǐ kě - literally "anticipate plum stop thirst")
Thinking of plums makes your mouth water and stops thirst.
Meaning: Living on fancies. Living on hope.
北宋时有一位学者叫文同， 他很喜欢竹子， 经常在竹林中散步， 仔细观察竹子生长的情况，
枝叶伸展的姿态， 竹笋成长的细节以及在四季中的变化。 他对竹子非常熟悉， 闭上眼都能想出竹子的样子，
一有时间就在家里画竹。 他画的竹子远近闻名， 许多人从很远的地方赶来请他画竹。 晁补之是文同的知心朋友，
先向晁补之请教文同画竹的秘诀，晁补之说：“当他画竹的， 心里已经有竹的影子了， 这就是他独到的地方。”
Heart Has Completed Bamboo
During the Northern Song Dynasty there lived a scholar named
Wen Tong. He was very fond of bamboo. Often he would walk
in the bamboo forest, carefully observing the way the
bamboo grew, noting the way the branches and leaves
stretched from the trunk and the details of growth during
the four changing seasons. He became very familiar with
bamboo. Closing his eyes he could imagine what the bamboo
looked like. At home he would draw the bamboo. Wen Tong's
drawings of bamboo became known far and wide. Many people
came great distances to ask him to draw bamboo.
Chao Buzhi was Wen Tong's closest friend. Often he and
Wen Tong would drink wine and appreciate bamboo. Chao
Buzhi's greatest pleasure was to watch his friend Wen Tong
There was a young man who wanted to learn how to draw
bamboo like Wen Tong.
He asked Chao Buzhi to tell him Wen Tong's secret. Chao
Buzhi said: "When he draws bamboo, it's already traced in
his heart. This is his unique talent."
- literally: heart has finished bamboo)
Meaning: Have a well thought out plan. Know what you intend
to accomplish before you
tā duì gāo
zuò le chōng fèn zhǔn
She is well prepared for the college entrance examination,
completed bamboo (as if she's already written it).
yī wú fèng)
Heavenly Clothing No Seams
Long ago, there lived a man
named Guo Han. It was a hot summer. He couldn't fall
asleep in his bedroom, so he went into the yard to sleep.
Not long after he lay down he saw a woman dressed in white
floating down from the sky. She said to him: "I am the
Looking at her Guo Han noticed that there were no
seams in her garments. He thought this was very strange.
He asked her: "Why are there no seams in your clothes?"
She answered: "The garments of the immortals are not
made with a needle and thread. How would they have seams?"
yī wú fèng
literally: heaven clothing no seams)
tā de xiě zuò
tiān yī wú fèng
His handwriting is heaven clothing no seams
(zì xiāng máo dùn - Interacting Spear Shield)
Interacting Spear and Shield
ancient country of Chu there was a weapons merchant with a
small shop in the market. One day he went into the
street to sell some spears and shields. He held up a
shield and said to the crowd gathered around him, "This is the toughest
shield in the world. Nothing, no matter how
sharp, can ever penetrate it."
Then he held
up a spear, and said: "This is the sharpest spear
under heaven. No matter how tough something is,
this spear can slice right through it."
onlookers heard this and laughed. One of them asked
him, "Well then, if your spear is thrust at your shield,
The weapons dealer had no
answer, and left looking discouraged.
Chinese idiom: 自相矛盾
(zì xiāng máo dùn - literally "interacting spear
shield" ) You're selling a spear and shield.
Meaning: Making a contradictory statement or claiming the
(zǐyuē Confucius said)
Learn and at due time to report what one had learned, is
that not after all pleasure?
Have friends come from a far, is that not also a pleasure?
Person not recognized but not bitter, is that not after all
I almost included this with the children's stories,
because all the school children in China learn it, and
recite it every morning.
(pīng pāng qiú)
乒乓球，跑 过 去，
pīng pāng qiú,
zhǎo qiú tái
ràng qiú zhǎo qiú
dōu hǎn xiǎo
qiú kuài kuài
xiǎo qiú pèng
ràn qiú zhǎo
huā gǒu ài kěn gǔ tou
Small flower dog (spotted puppy) loved chew bone
wán gǔ tou tǔ shé tou
finished chewing stuck out tongue
tǔ shé tou tiǎn gǔ tou
lap lap tongue lick bone
tou pèng pèng gǒu shé tou
bone bump bumps puppy tongue
really is better when you read the Chinese out loud and
ignore the English translation.
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The Man in China Home
*The stories in this selection
come from traditional Chinese tales, as introduced to us by
our Chinese teacher, William. The translations are my
I have several
reference books from which I have learned what I know about
reading Chinese characters. Anytime I am quoting one of them
directly, I'll try to give credit where credit is due.
The one I use most often is actually software installed on this
computer. It's amazing, and allows me to have instant
translations of English into Chinese with both the character and the
pinyin pronunciation guide. In addition I can use it to look
up characters I don't know by searching the radicals , find
combinations of characters that form words (listed by most common),
and get historical information about character origins and
evolution. It's fabulous software folks, and if you can
find it someplace it's worth whatever you pay for it.
Wenlin Software for
Learning Chinese version 3.0 Copyright [c] 1997 - 2002 the
ABC Chinese - English dictionary edited by John DeFrancis Copyright
[c] 1996 - 2002 the University of Hawai'i.
In addition I have a
stack of books for learning Chinese:
The one that I get much
of my background information from is "A Key to Chinese Speech and
Writing" by Joël Ballassen (University of Paris 7) with the
Collaboration of Zhang Pengpeng (Beijing Language and Culture
University) and Christian Artuso (Translator) published by
Sinolingua, Beijing ISBN 7-80052-507-4
I'm also regularly
dipping into "The New Age Concise Chinese - English Dictionary"
published by The Commercial Press. Chief Editor, Pan Shaozhong ISBN 7 -100-03448-5/H-878